Our societal obsession with staying young has sent a strong message that aging is not okay. As a result, many individuals find themselves in a constant search for the product or method that will slow the inevitable aging process. All of this is not necessary, for our bodies have a built-in system for counteracting stress and aging.
The autonomic nervous system has two wings that work together to bring homeostasis to our bodies. These wings act as a seesaw that constantly works to balance us out. We’ve all heard of the fight/flight/freeze response (otherwise known as the stress response); but not everyone has heard of the rest/digest response (also known as the relaxation response). When we undergo a stressful event, such as a near car accident, our stress response kicks in to ensure our survival. Once we’ve made it out alive, our relaxation response steps in to bring us back to homeostasis by lowering our heart rate and slowing our breathing (among other functions). The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional responses to stress.
Herbert Benson, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered the relaxation response’s power to reduce stress in the 1960’s. He soon discovered that through prayer, meditation, chanting, and repetitive movement- people have been practicing the relaxation response for centuries. These days, scientists have shown that such practices can lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption levels; and reduce symptoms associated with an array of conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, hypertension, infertility, cancer, and even aging.
Benson’s latest research, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE (July 2), looked at how the relaxation response affected each of the body’s 40,000 genes. He found that when compared to a control group, those individuals who regularly used the relaxation response activated anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidation changes, which offset the effects of stress on the body.
Eliciting the relaxation response is easier than it seems. Once or twice a day, find a quiet space to disengage for 10 to 20 minutes. Sit in a relaxed position and bring your attention to your breath. Slowly breathe in and out and follow your breath with your attention. If your thoughts wander- which they will because this is normal- just bring your attention back to your breath. You can repeat a word silently to yourself as you exhale to help hold your attention. I like to use the words “relax” or “surrender”, but the words “love”, “peace”, “let go”, or whatever you come up will work just as well.
Be easy on yourself, for your brain probably hasn’t had a break for a long time. When we sleep, our body rests… but not our brains. The only time our brains get rest is during the relaxation response. So be good to yourself and give your body, mind, and spirit the rest they need by practicing the relaxation response daily. You’ll love the new and improved you at any age!
Benson, H., Bhasin, M., Dusek, J., Joseph, M., Libermann, T., Otu, H., Wohlhueter, A., Zerbini, L. (2008). Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002576
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